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Hunting turtles a dangerous game

By David Seburn and Scott Gillingwater,
London Free Press,
January 23 2017

Hunting and other human activities have decimated many wildlife species, but population declines are particularly hard to reverse among slow-growing, late-maturing creatures such as turtles. Back in 1620, Bermuda passed the first legislation to protect turtles after hunting caused green sea turtle numbers to crash. Yet, despite four centuries of conservation efforts, that population has not recovered.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry still has not learned this basic lesson: hunting turtles, especially when coupled with other threats, invariably leads to population declines. The snapping turtle, Ontario’s largest turtle species, is also the only one today that can be legally hunted in this province. After steady declines in its numbers, the turtle is now officially listed as a species at risk both provincially and federally. But rather than end the hunt, the provincial government has responded by merely shortening its seasonal duration.

Many environmental groups have called for an outright ban of the snapping turtle hunt including Canadian Herpetological Society, Ontario Nature and David Suzuki Foundation.

The continued hunting is especially worrying because numerous other threats endanger snapping turtles. Like many species, they are losing habitat, notably through the draining of wetlands. Additionally, hundreds of snapping turtles die every year on roads, many of them adult females making their annual migrations to lay eggs. Others are killed by boat propellers or drown in commercial fishing nets. Snapping turtles also contend with another challenge: human persecution. They have been found shot, beaten and intentionally run over on the sides of roads.

Research on turtle populations indicates that an increase in mortality of even a few percentage points can cause a decline in their numbers. That is because hatchlings take about 20 years to reach maturity. As well, turtles are not attentive parents: females dig a hole in the ground, lay their eggs, bury them and walk away. Many eggs are dug up and eaten by nest predators such as raccoons, coyotes and striped skunks, whose populations have been growing. The result is that, in some areas, predators eat more than 90 percent of turtle eggs.

Some efforts are underway to protect snapping turtles; various concerned groups are working to reduce road deaths and protect turtle habitat. More must be done, however, to both reduce the number of adult turtle deaths and educate the public about threats to this species. The question remains, why further endanger its survival by removing adult turtles – the most important age class – through a legal hunt?

The provinces of Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have already banned hunting of snapping turtles. The same has to happen in Ontario. As a species at risk that cannot sustain increases in adult losses, the snapping turtle should not be subjected to recreational killing by humans.

David Seburn is an amphibian and reptile ecologist and chair of the Canadian Herpetological Society’s conservation committee. Scott Gillingwater is a species-at-risk biologist and past president of the Canadian Herpetological Society.